School News Network Feature: GEAR UP program helping high school juniors prepare for success at GRCC – and beyond

After school recently at Lee High School, math tutor Kristine Wright pulled out bags of snacks for the students planning to attend that day’s session.

On Tuesdays she offers math tutoring, and on Thursdays she hosts an SAT prep session. Some students in Wright’s study group at Lee have been a part of the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs — GEAR UP — cohort for the past few years.

Both study opportunities are available for Lee’s GEAR UP students, now in their junior year.

Junior Annette Gonzolez said she was afraid to take the SAT in a few months and write essays for her college applications. Wright assured her, “I have everything we need to get you all prepped.”

Junior Alexsandra Cortez-Torres said she’s excited to work with Wright every week, as math is not her favorite subject.

Thanks to Wright’s support and the resources and opportunities offered by GEAR UP, Alexsandra also is now looking forward to college. She plans to attend Grand Rapids Community College and has set her sights on transferring to the University of Michigan, though her major is unclear.

Time is flying for Alexsandra and her classmates as they prepare to take their SAT exams in the spring and continue to tour college campuses.

“They tell you, ‘You’re just a ninth-grader. You have so much time,’” she recalled. “Where did that time go?”

Preparing Families for the Future

GEAR UP has worked since 2018 to increase college and career readiness of students in four Wyoming school districts: Wyoming, Kelloggsville, Godwin Heights and Godfrey-Lee. It started with cohorts of seventh-graders to work with through middle and high school.

GRCC was the only college in Michigan to receive a $2.1 million, six-year grant from the U.S. Education Department to fund the program.

Program Director Steve Beauclair has a checklist for the class of 2024 and their families.

“Now that our cohort students are juniors, we’re asking families to put together a potential college list — the more colleges the better,” he said. “When students make the visit, (we ask) does it feel like a good fit? Do they see themselves being successful here? Do they see people who look like themselves?”

GEAR UP also connects with both English and Spanish-speaking families to research scholarships and to complete federal student aid applications.

“There is a lot of financial aid available,” Beauclair said. “And we want parents of seniors to be in the position to have multiple financial aid packages so they can make the best decision.”

Alexsandra said GEAR UP has helped her understand how to eliminate the financial barriers to college by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – known as FAFSA — and applying for scholarships. 

“It’s not that I’m not smart enough for college, it’s the money that is the problem,” she said.

Building Confidence, Continued Support

Annette said GEAR UP opened her eyes to new opportunities and built her confidence about making decisions about attending college.

“They help you in the present with high school classes, and help prepare you for college and the future,” she said. “Thinking about college gives you anxiety, but being able to (visit) colleges to see what they offer makes the process easier.”

Annette plans to start at GRCC and eventually transfer to Davenport University to “maybe pursue something in business.”

“I want to go to GRCC because it’s close to home and they have resources to help you out,” she said. “I’m nervous but excited to be in a new environment and meet new people.”

Being a part of the GEAR UP cohort has helped alleviate junior Melanie Zapata’s fears.

“We graduate next year, and I’m scared, but not as scared about going to college knowing I have help,” she said.

GEAR UP’s parent and student surveys gauge their comfort as they move closer to applying to colleges.

“We sense a growing urgency amongst parents as they get closer to graduation and college,” Beauclair said. “We stand at the ready to help get (students) into GRCC, and we’ve taken them to all these schools with the purpose of giving them options.”

He said the grant has a goal of 80% completion of the original cohort of 800 students in the four districts. 

“You build connections working with the students along the way, and we’ll still be available for them at GRCC,” Wright said. “We want them to be successful.”

This story was reported by Alexis Stark of the School News Network.

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